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No. 4 Baltimore Ravens (10-6) at No. 2 New England Patriots (12-4)

Sunday, January 20 - 6:30pm et/3:30pm pt on CTV



Patriots prepare to play host to Ravens

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- (AP) Home sweet home. Sure works for the Patriots in the AFC title game.

New England gets a chance to extend its mastery in the final step to the Super Bowl on Sunday against Baltimore, the team the Patriots beat a year ago for the conference crown. That win made them 4-0 in home conference title games.

Although they were more vulnerable at home than usual during the 2012 regular season, losing to Arizona and San Francisco and having tight games with Buffalo and the Jets, the Patriots (13-4) are happy not to be heading to Baltimore (12-6) this weekend. Or anywhere else.

"Everything is on deck," Patriots Pro Bowl defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "You have to put everything you have into this game. If you lose you go home, plain and simple."

But the Patriots are at home, where they've been beaten in early-round games, including against the Ravens 33-14 three years ago. At this stage, though, no way.

That success rate for the AFC championship doesn't fool Wilfork into feeling complacent. Just the opposite.

"This team always plays us tough," Wilfork added. "This team has been in the playoffs on the road and won a lot of games. They won here in the playoffs. We have to be able to prepare well and execute very well at a high level. I don't think we can (leave) no stone unturned in this game, because if we do it could cost us."

The Patriots are one of the NFL's best home teams, going 73-15 since Gillette Stadium opened in 2002, including 10-2 in the post-season. Many of those games have been routs.

But the Ravens are 8-5 in road playoffs, including their upset of the Broncos in double overtime last Saturday in an equally tough venue.

And there's no reason to fear a trip to Foxborough, where no one has fared better in the playoffs.

Last January, they were an incompletion in the end zone in the final minute -- Sterling Moore stripped the ball from Lee Evans after the Ravens receiver had both hands on it -- from winning. And then they botched a 32-yard field goal that would have forced overtime.

"These are two of the top teams for a long time now and we know each other very well," Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis said. "It's that chess match; they are going to make plays and we are going to. It's always one play here or there and who makes the last play will win. It will always be a 60-minute game."

That's something Lewis revels in as he makes a final run for a second championship before retiring when the Ravens are done.

Previous Matchups
Sep. 23, 2012 NE 30 @ BAL 31
Jan. 22, 2012 BAL 20 @ NE 23
Oct. 17, 2010 BAL 20 @ NE 23

"Both sides understand the game of football," he said. "There have been some great, great rivalries and we have one of those going on with New England now."

Baltimore won at home 31-30 in Week 3, which seems like eons ago. The Ravens were contending for the AFC's top seed until losing four of their last five.

That dropped them out of a bye position, too, which New England grabbed. But the Ravens beat Indianapolis at home in the wild-card round, then stunned Denver.

"I think you always want to play at home. We want to play at home. We've got great fans and it's a great atmosphere," Ravens centre Matt Birk said. "I'd say it's certainly an advantage, but that's the way it is. Ultimately it's not going to decide the outcome of the game. Whoever plays better, more fundamentally sound football is going to win the game."

Overall, the Ravens are 2-7 vs. New England, including 1-5 at Foxborough. Their defeats in five of the last six meetings were by a combined 16 points.

Wilfork doesn't care about history, recent or otherwise.

"This is going to be a battle," he said. "Both teams deserve to be at this level. You have the two best teams in the AFC playing.

"It just goes to show you the consistency of these teams. Every year it always seems like we are in it and they are in it and it just comes down to a couple of plays during the season or a couple of games in the season for these two ballclubs. For us we just have to be ready to go for 60 minutes; sometimes even more than that, as we saw last week. They went against a football team in Denver and they went out there and played more than 60 minutes. They came out on top, so that says a lot about how tough this football team is."

Unlike some other potential visitors to New England, any weather issues won't bother the Ravens, either. Hey, after subzero wind chill numbers at Denver last weekend, Baltimore will consider just about anything balmy.

The oddsmakers believe the home-field advantage is substantial for the Patriots, who are 9-point favourites. They'll gladly accept those points before kickoff.

"It's good that we get to stay home, but once you get out there on the field, you have two teams going at it, all playing for one common goal," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said. "I don't care where you play; it's not going to change how one team comes out. Just because you're at home doesn't mean you're going to be more prepared than the team that's on the road.

"I think the team we're playing now shows that. They've won a lot of road playoff games over the last couple years, so I don't think the home-field advantage will really be that much of a difference as far as 'since we're at home we're going to win.'

"But as a player, you always love playing in front of your fans."

Players To Watch
Torrey Smith - Wide Receiver

Smith only has five catches through two playoff games but he's averaging better than 25 yards per reception and found the endzone twice last week against Denver. Smith also had a huge game against the Patriots during the regular season with six catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns less than 24 hours after the death of his younger brother. He is always a threat to go deep.

Vince Wilfork - Defensive Tackle

Wilfork was absolutely dominant during the Patriots win over the Ravens in last year's AFC Championship game. Wilfork owned Ravens center Matt Birk in a couple of one-on-one matchups and created havoc in the backfield. He will be key to both limiting Ray Rice in the running game and providing pressure in the passing game, especially on three and four man rushes.


The Ravens win if...

The Ravens have held Tom Brady in check as well as anyone save for maybe the New York Giants over the last few years. In their last four meetings with the Patriots, Baltimore has held Brady to just four touchdown passes and intercepted him seven times.

The Ravens will need to establish pressure on Brady and bait him into taking chances to give their ballhawks on defence a chance to create turnovers.

2012 Team Stats
Points BAL 24.9
NE 34.8
Pass Yards BAL 233.7
NE 291.4
Rush Yards BAL 118.8
NE 136.5
Points Allowed BAL 21.5
NE 20.7
Pass Yds Allowed BAL 228.1
NE 271.4
Rush Yds Allowed BAL 122.8
NE 101.9

Offensively, the Ravens need to get good prodcution from Ray Rice. In last season's AFC Championship game the Patriots held Rice to just 67 yards on 21 carries. That isn't good enough. Baltimore will need Rice to look more like he did against Denver in the divisional round where he picked up 131 yards and a touchdown.

If Rice can get going, things should open up in the passing game for Joe Flacco who has been terrific in the playoffs so far, particularly when going deep. Flacco is averaging more than 20 yards per completion during the post-season and has 11 completions of greater than 20 yards.

Those type of numbers bode well for the Ravens in a matchup with the NFL's 29th-ranked passed defence that gave up a ton of big plays through the air during the regular season.

They will also need to shore up their special teams from last week. It's not often you can walk away with a win after giving up two return touchdowns.

The Patriots win if...

Success for New England starts where it always does: Tom Brady. With the Patriots victory over the Texans, Brady notched his 17th post-season win as a starter - the most in NFL history. If the Patriots offensive line can keep Haloti Ngata and the rest of the Ravens defensive line out of the backfield then Brady should be able to carve up the Baltimore secondary with his precision.

Yes, New England lost Rob Gronkowski to another broken arm which prevents the Patriots from running as many of their two tight end sets but that won't slow their offence down that much. It's not like they didn't put points up without Gronkowski when he was sidelined during the regular season. In the five regular season games without Gronk, the Patriots averaged 34.2 points.

Brady still has a bevy of talent to throw to with Aaron Hernandez, Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd. And in the backfield, Stevan Ridley and last week's breakout star Shane Vereen provide the Patriots with a nice complement to the aerial attack. The Patriots have a significant edge offensively.

On defence it's all about stopping the big play. New England gave up 74 passes of over 20 yards during the regular season. They can't allow that trend to continue against a Ravens offence that has thrived on the deep ball during the palyoffs. Aqib Talib, Devin McCourty and the rest of the Patriots secondary will need to step up.

A little pressure on Flacco up front would also help take some of the burden off the Patritos defensive backs.

Team Leaders

Baltimore
Passing Joe Flacco 59.7% 3,817 Yds 22 TD 10 INT
Receiving Anquan Boldin 65 Rec 921 Yds 14.2 Avg 4 TD
Rushing Ray Rice 257 Att 1,143 Yds 4.4 Avg 9 TD
Tackles Bernard Pollard 71 Solo 27 Ast 98 Tot 2 Sacks
Sacks Paul Kruger 9 Sacks 42 Tkl 1 FF 1 FR
Interceptions Cary Williams 4 INT 90 Yds 17 PDef 1 TD

New England
Passing Tom Brady 63.0% 4,827 Yds 34 TD 8 Int
Receiving Wes Welker 118 Rec 1,354 Yds 11.5 Avg 6 TD
Rushing Stevan Ridley 290 Att 1,263 Yds 4.4 Avg 12 TD
Tackles Jerod Mayo 87 Solo 59 Ast 146 Tot 3 Sack
Sacks Rob Ninkovich 8 sacks 58 Tkl 5 FF 4 FR
Interceptions Devin McCourty 5 INT 53 Yds 13 PDef 0 TD


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